Preschool Philosophy: Fun with Thoreau
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He was a writer, a philosopher, an abolitionist, an environmentalist, a conscientious objector and a life-long learner. But Henry David Thoreau is perhaps best known for his love of the outdoors—his 1854 Walden is a spiritual autobiography, a social critique and a rhapsody to nature. While many see this icon of transcendentalism as the intellectual territory of Ph.D. students, Thoreau was also beloved of children in his time. Thoreau believed that children learned through exploration and conversation, and today even the youngest of his "spiritual children" can benefit from learning about his ideas on subjects such as nature, simple living and self-reliance.
Thoreau the Writer Walden is perhaps a bit too intense for younger readers, but Deborah O'Neal and Angela Westengard have penned a delightful children's book called The Trouble with Henry: A Tale of Walden Pond. Rich in sensory details, it takes readers through the seasons at Walden Pond where an unconventional Henry David Thoreau works to protect his beloved woods from becoming a toothpick factory. The lesson inherent in the book will not be lost on even the smallest readers as they learn to appreciate nature through the beautiful illustrations of S.D. Schindler's.
Equally charming is D.B. Johnson's Henry Builds a Cabin in which Thoreau gets advice from friends Emerson, Alcott and other Concord luminaries on how to best go about building his famously humble house. This book is even part of a series on Thoreau—Henry Climbs a Mountain, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg and Henry Works are other books in the group.
Thoreau the Architect Although he only lived there for just over two years, Thoreau will be forever associated with the tiny cabin—only one room ten-by-fifteen feet!—that he built at Walden Pond on the land of his friend and fellow philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. To give children a feel for the size of the cabin, consider taping off a ten-by-fifteen foot area on your kitchen floor or drawing it as a chalk outline on your driveway. Ask your children to think of things that would fit in Thoreau's cabin—and things that wouldn't. It's a great way to teach them that most basic tenet of Thoreauvian insight: "Simplify, simplify."
Fiddlers Green, a whimsical treasure trove of high-detail paper models, offers a color model download of Thoreau's cabin for free. While little hands won't do well with the intricate cutting skills needed for this project (consider printing many copies in case of slip-ups), older children might be able to handle the work under supervision. A young child can at least help glue the model together. After the model is put together, kids can click on the interactive thumbnail version of the plans to see corresponding text from Walden. Spartan furnishings and a paper base to represent the woods and pond complete the cabin model. Having read The Trouble With Henry, children will know to make sure the Fiddlers Green plan includes three chairs—one for Henry, two for visitors!